4.5. Edward Elgar, oratorio ‘The Apostles’ (1903)

In 1903, the shofar made ​​its debut on the concert stage in the oratorio The Apostles by Edward Elgar (1857-1934). This work was commissioned by the prestigious Birmingham Festival, just as Mendelssohn’s biblical oratorio Elijah in 1846.

The Apostles is about the beginning of Christianity. The oratorio consists of a prologue and two parts. Part I deals with Jesus’ nightly prayer on the mountain and the calling of the apostles, the Sermon on the Mount, the miracle of the walking on the water and the conversion of Mary Magdalene. Part II deals with Judas’ betrayal, the arrest of Jesus, his crucifixion, the scene at the tomb and the resurrection.

The dawn after Jesus’ nightly prayer is announced by shofar blasts. Rather unusual is their both Christian and Jewish background. In 1901, Elgar spent his summer holiday on Ynys Lochtyn, a small island off the coast of Wales. Inspired by the Christian hymns sung by the local people, he wrote a number of fragments and themes for The Apostles; the first theme began with the interval E♭3-C4 on half notes, followed by a melody line inspired by the falling minor 3rds of many Ynys Lochtyn hymns, and Elgar thought of using this theme “to invoke the great sunrise” *Moore, Edward Elgar 381 at the beginning of his oratorio. To prepare himself further for this passage about the sunrise in Jerusalem and the morning service in the Temple, Elgar studied not only the Bible, but also the Talmud; in addition, he asked the advice of Francis Cohen, rabbi, musicologist and musical editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia. *Francis Lyon Cohen (1862-1934). The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906). In January 1903, Cohen sent Elgar the required information and suggested that he could use words from Psalm 92, which “could be prefaced with a flourish blown on the ancient Shofar, or ram’s horn.” *Moore, Edward Elgar 384. Elgar’s biographer, Jerrold Northrop Moore, concludes rightly that “Thus the first Apostles music had been called forth not in response to any words or themes of the Apostles’ story, but in circumstances quite unconnected.” *Ibid. 381.

Ex. 1. Edward Elgar, The Apostles. Piano-vocal score 19-20.

Part I:1 of the oratorio, “The Calling of the Apostles,” is based on Luke 6:12-13 from the New Testament, in which Jesus spends the night on a mountain to pray and to prepare himself for the calling of his apostles. After this tranquil episode in Elgar’s oratorio, the shofar announces the sunrise in “The Dawn.” In Ex. 1, rehearsal mark 25, mm. 1-2, the shofar blows a tekiʿah, which resounds in the clarinet and the French horns. The shofar’s rising major 6th E♭4-C5 at No. 25, m. 5, is inverted to the minor 3rd C4-E♭4; on this 3rd, the choir of Watchers on the Temple roof sings the Talmudic words “It shines! The face of all the East is now ablaze with light, Dawn reacheth even unto Hebron!” *A quotation from Talmud Yoma 28b: “It was taught: R. Ishmael said: The morning [star] shines. R. Akiba said the morning [star] rose. Nahuma b. Afkashion said: The morning [star] is already in Hebron. Mathia b. Samuel, the officer in charge of the counts, said: The whole east even unto Hebron is alight. R. Judah b. Bathyra said: The whole east even unto Hebron is alight and all the people have gone forth, each to his work. If that were the case, it would be [too much of the day] too late! – Rather: each to hire working men.” Elgar may have thought of the apostles as Jesus’ working men.

Already from its entry, the shofar is associated with light and the combination of the shofar blast and the light recalls Ps. 89:16: “Happy is the people who know the joyful shout; *Teruʿah means not only “shofar blast” but also “(joyful) shout.” / O LORD, they walk in the light of Your presence.” After No. 26, the shofar blows the three traditional blasts: the tekiʿah in mm. 1-3, the shevarim in mm. 3-4 and the teruʿah in mm. 4-6, the last with two trumpets added, perhaps alluding to the two ḥaẓoẓrot, that were blown in the Temple service together with the shofar. At No. 27, there is a short passage as an introduction to the psalm after No. 28; the Watchers praise the rising sun with the words “The face of all the East is now ablaze with light, the Dawn reacheth even unto Hebron!” This city, King David’s first residence, is mentioned here to confirm the claim of Jesus’ descent from David. After No. 28, the choir in the Temple sings Ps. 92:2-5, 10 and 13. These verses proclaim God’s praise, thank Him for His loving kindness in the morning and His divine protection: “For, lo, Thine enemies, O Lord, shall perish: all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.” V. 11, *v. 10 in the King James Bible, used by Elgar “But my horn shalt Thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn,” omitted by Elgar, contains the Hebrew word keren, which denotes not only an animal horn as a symbol of power, divine help, victory over evil and the Messiah’s power but also an animal horn as a signal instrument. This v. 11 is not sung, but indicated by two tekiot of the shofar, while the choir sings v. 13: “he [the righteous] shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Out of the rising 6th of the tekiʿah grows a long crescendo, a musical picture of the sunrise; Elgar’s friend and publisher August Jaeger, in his analysis of The Apostles, renders it as follows: “Anon the full orchestra is employed upon a crescendo of surpassing grandeur, the shofar, reinforced by trumpets, shining like a ray of dazzling brightness through the maze of orchestral sound.” *Jaeger, The Apostles 15.

As No. 25, m. 1 in Ex. 1 shows, the entrance of the shofar has the performance or expression mark “(distant).” This mark could have three possible meanings. First, it could be a performance mark: the shofar blower should take up a position outside the concert hall, just as the trumpets of the Apocalypse in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (1894) *Cf. Chapter 1.2 or the posthorn in his Symphony No. 3 (1896). Second, it could be an expression mark: the shofar blower in the orchestra should suggest distance by blowing pianissimo, as indicated in No. 25, m. 2. Third, it could be a psychological mark: the shofar blower in the chronotope of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem stands at both a concrete and hierarchical distance from the hearer, just as the Watchers “on the Temple roof” in No. 25, m. 3. All three possible meanings fit in with Bakhtin’s characterization of authoritative discourse: “The authoritative word is located in a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 342. The Russian slovo can mean “word,” “story,” “song,” or “discourse.” The authoritative word is the shofar blast, announcing the Messiah Jesus, connected with the Jewish religious Past. “It is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special (as it were, hieratic) language.” *Ibid. 342. The shofar blower is positioned on the Temple Mount and blows the traditional blasts. “[I]t remains sharply demarcated, compact and inert: it demands, so to speak, not only quotation marks but a demarcation even more magisterial[.]” *Ibid. 343. The shofar entry in Elgar’s oratorio is not accompanied by the orchestra.

The tekiʿah of the shofar serves as a leitmotif to announce the Messiah: it returns in the scene At the Sepulchre in Part II of The Apostles; after an alto recitative, the Watchmen repeat their sunrise motifs from Part I and at the words “The dawn reacheth even unto Hebron!” the shofar sounds again, this time to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection. The shofar remains connected to the chronotope of Jerusalem, a holy place for both Jews and Christians; in Elgar’s oratorio, the Temple is a stage for the shofar blower, who proclaims the coming of Jesus and thereby marks holy time in the holy place. According to the musicologist Malcolm Miller, in Elgar’s Christian oratorio, the use of the shofar with its “nexus of meanings . . . from its original sources in the Pentateuch” leads to a “new, anachronistic symbolism.” *Miller, “The Shofar and Its Symbolism” 99. However, Miller does not make clear what is anachronistic in the Christian use of the shofar (and ḥaẓoẓrah), which are found, as salpinx, fourteen times in the New Testament and represent a new tradition next to the old one.

In The Apostles, the Present of the modern oratorio was successfully directed by the Past in the form of Ps. 92, Luke 6, Christian hymn singing and the shofar blasts from Jewish liturgy. After the successful introduction of the shofar in the score, the practical integration of the archaic instrument in the modern symphony orchestra went less smoothly. Under “Shofar” in the Jewish Encyclopaedia, Francis Cohen had written: “The manipulation is of a very rough and empiric character;” *Cohen et al., “Shofar.” Jewish Encyclopaedia he had given Elgar the pitches of his best shofar: F♯ and D♯, *Jaeger, The Apostles 13, Note and the composer transposed this major 6th to E♭-C. The orchestra searched for a ram’s horn with these pitches and discovered that all shofarot are different, that most horns produce a 5th instead of a 6th, and that many instruments are “out of tune.” In his letter of August 28th, 1903 to Hans Richter, who would conduct the first performance, Elgar suggested a stopgap solution: *Moore, Elgar: A Creative Life 133. In this letter, Elgar was exploring the technical possibilities of both his first shofar and his first typewriter.

There is a part for the “Shofar”, (the Hebrew Ram’s horn)—of course the real instrument, which I am told is treacherous and next to impossible to use m u s i c a l l y, cannot be used: for the sake of effect and contrast I should like the short passage which stands out, to be played on the long trumpet; in the list of trumpet players I see Mr. Morrow is included; . . . Mr. Morrow would, always with your permission, bring his l o n g e s t and S H I N I E S T T_R_U_M_M_M_M_M_P_E_T!!!! Capable of producing the Shofar “Call”.

That is what I want.

The “long trumpet” is the then already obsolete valveless trumpet, which was harder to play than the valve trumpet but sounded more sonorous and looked spectacular because of its greater length. Elgar’s comments in the letter demonstrate the obscurity of the shofar outside the synagogue. In 1873, the British composer George MacFarren wrote the oratorio St. John the Baptist, which opens with three upward 4ths of an unaccompanied trumpet, which, according to the Introduction to the score, are blasts of “the ram’s horn, or silver trumpet” [sic]. And still in 1917, The Musical Quarterly, the premier scholarly musical journal in the United States, mentioned The Apostles in an article about “Exoticism in Music in Retrospect,” calling the ram’s horn “the shofar of the Mohammedan [sic] world.” *Parker, “Exoticism in Music in Retrospect” 157. Though the shofar was being played in many synagogues throughout the Western world, it was apparently still considered by many to be a non-Western instrument from an exotic culture.

By subjecting the musical material of the shofar blasts to a process of stylization, Elgar could easily replace the ram’s horn by a modern trumpet. He colors the timbre of the shofar by doubling it with modern trumpets and horns, thereby integrating the shofar in a modern orchestral sound. The shofar blasts are also modernized harmonically; their 6ths fit in different inversions of 7th chords, making the shofar passages harmonically more dynamic than would have been possible with shofar 5ths in fundamental positions of triads.

In The Apostles, the shofar blasts are always authoritative discourse. The sun rises, conquering darkness and then appears the Messiah, in the words of John 1:9, “The true light, which enlightens everyone[.]” *The Bible, New Revised Standard Version. In his analysis, Jaeger formulates both the Jewish and the Christian aspects of this dawn: “the watchers on the Temple roof greeted the earthly beginning of day” and “The Angel [at Jesus’ nocturnal prayer on the mountain] announced the spiritual Dawn breaking for mankind.” *Jaeger, The Apostles 15. Despite the Christian spirit of his oratorio, Elgar approached Jewish tradition with openness of mind; he called in the help of an authority like Francis Cohen and documented himself well. The oratorio was received with great acclaim, not only by publisher August Jaeger, who wrote: “That opening! & ‘that there’ Temple stuff with Shofar, antique cymbals, color most gorgeous & new, effects most astounding & bewildering, organ! &c&c” *Moore, Elgar: A Creative Life 412 but also by the general public and the royal court. The London premiere of The Apostles in 1904 was part of a great Elgar Festival, culminating in the composer’s elevation to the peerage by King Edward VII. *It should not go unmentioned that the festival was created by the efforts of Elgar’s Maecenas Leo Schuster, a Jewish banker with relations at court. Cf. Hughes, “‘The Duc d’Elgar’: Making a Composer Gentleman” 60.

Though Elgar originally intended to write a trilogy about the dawn of Christianity, he only composed The Apostles (1903) and The Kingdom (1906). “What a tragedy,” wrote his close friend William Reed after Elgar’s death, “that he never could be induced to write Part III of the Trilogy, where, as he many times told me, this same shofar was to sound the Last Trumpet.” *Reed, Elgar as I Knew Him 145. Had Elgar composed this third oratorio, the Trilogy would have been a unique work of art, connecting, by means of the shofar, the first books of the New Testament, the gospels, with the last book, Revelation.


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